By Mike Servedio
Late last summer, Academy paleontologist and paleo-illustrator Jason Poole received an unusual call from the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management. They asked him to check on an old field site in the Bighorn Basin, near the border with Montana.
Poole had worked at the site in the late 1990s and early 2000s with University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Peter Dodson. There, they uncovered the type specimen for Suuwassea, a sauropod from the Jurassic Era.
Last fall, Poole and a team of associates from the New Jersey State Museum and the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project drove the remote dirt roads to the site to investigate. Upon arriving, the team discovered something astonishing: obvious fossil bone protruding above the surface near the old site. A fuzzy phone call from the basin to Dodson back home confirmed that it was possible there was more Suuwassea in the ground.
Poole decided to return to the site in summer 2016 for a more thorough investigation. That’s where I came in. With the possibility of a successful season, I got the OK to meet Poole in Montana to document the first week of the dig.
On Sunday, July 10, 2016, I meet up with Poole at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association (YBRA) just outside Red Lodge, Montana. The paleo-artist is tucked into a corner of YBRA’s main lodge with his sketchbook, putting the finishing touches on a new dinosaur drawing.
There’s a fire burning in the corner. College students are milling around on the back porch with coffee, admiring the view over town and the mountains in the distance. I’m an avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast. This is my kind of place.
Most of the team has just arrived. There are Poole and co-leader Jason Schein of the New Jersey State Museum and their crew of four experts. Teachers, educators, dinosaur lovers, and a group of friends from the tech industry are joining us via the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project. Altogether there are about 20 in our group. We’ll be split into two teams for most of the week, half the group heading out with Poole to the Suuwassea site and half with Schein to another site where he has unearthed a possible Triceratops.
Sunday evening is for instructions. We get updated on the weather and terrain, safety requirements, the wildlife we might encounter, the basic fieldwork techniques, and other odds and ends.
Mornings start early at YBRA, which organizations and colleges around the country use as a staging ground for environmental education. Breakfast is at 7 a.m. sharp and we’re due to hit the road by 7:45 a.m. for the hour-long drive to the field site.
We’ve known since last night that Monday’s weather isn’t looking ideal. There’s rain in the forecast for the basin (which receives less than a few inches of rain per year). That makes the dusty, rutted roads impassable even for our big trucks.
By the end of breakfast, the crew has determined the rain is going to keep us from the sites today. The disappointment is palpable among everyone, especially Poole and Schein. We spend the day exploring the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, located at the southern margin of the Bighorn Basin in Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Tuesday is looking much more promising for fieldwork and proves to be so, with clear skies and no precipitation in the forecast.
Our two vehicles are on the road before 8 a.m. I’m with Poole and the Suuwassea team, and everyone is chomping at the bit to get to the site. We listen to a playlist of songs about paleontology. A cellphone rings, the Jurassic Park theme song signaling an incoming call. Dinosaurs are definitely on our minds.
The drive out is long and we traverse increasingly rough roads, with the final miles just through open desert. We park on a bluff overlooking the entire Bighorn Basin, where we can see almost 100 miles in every direction.
Poole is clearly excited as we make our way down the hill to the site. He’s been to the site already this season to drop off tools and equipment, but this is the first day of digging. He gathers the team in a circle, and as the tarp is pulled up we are exposed to our first fossils of the trip. An obvious set of ribs protrudes from the dirt. Poole smiles and grabs a brush. It’s time to get to work.
The crew arranges tools as Poole gives instructions. The first goal is searching the area for “float”—fossils that are sitting on top of the dirt. We scan the areas around the bones sticking out from the ground and gather any obvious fossils. We clear, bag, and note the float in field books. Two minutes into working, the most common question of the week arises: “Is this a fossil or a rock?”
Our tools are fairly basic and you probably have most in your garage. There are old paintbrushes, brooms, steel shovels, screwdrivers, and awls. Poole has mixed a jar of glue that will be used to attach broken fossils to larger bones.
It’s time to try to figure out how much of Suuwassea is still below the dirt. The team needs to locate the edges of the obvious exposed ribs and the edges of what appears to be a more robust fossil bed.
It’s at this point that I realize that paleontology fieldwork is a lot like people think it is. Or at least how I’ve always thought it was, even before working for the Academy. Much of the next two days is spent around the fossil bed, patiently pushing away thousands of years of dirt to expose small bits of bone left behind. The dirt itself is first swept away with brooms and then smaller brushes.
Rocks are cracked with screwdrivers and awls and then moved away from the site. Poole and the team look down at the site from a distance and hypothesize how the dinosaur might be buried in the ground.
The minutiae of the work make it seem like it will take forever to unearth enough fossil to jacket and bring back to the Academy. But even as we approach the end of our first day, the crew has made obvious progress. We’ve cleared piles of dirt from the edges of the site, sifted the dirt, and pushed it off to the side. The edges of the rib bones are clear, and more fossil has been exposed. But even more exciting may be the discovery of additional bones. We’ve found vertebrae and a possible skull bone just above the ribs. So much of the skull bone is exposed that Poole thinks we might be able to excavate it tomorrow.
We are able to jacket the fossils by the next afternoon. Putting a jacket (a coat of plaster and other padding) around each fossil and the rock it is embedded in will protect it during the long drive back to Philadelphia. The team makes quick work of jacketing the top of the fossil before Poole digs out the bottom. I’ll next see the bowling ball-size jacket back at the Academy in the first week of August.
I switched things up on Thursday and joined Jason Schein’s team, working some 12 miles away from Poole’s site. The road into the other site is very rough and also requires about a mile hike in. The team had seen rattlesnakes on the way into the site earlier this week, but we do not cross any on our trek.
At this site, Schein and his team are working to unlock a triceratops horn from a small hill in the basin. I watched throughout the morning as Shein and Rick Schmidt used a jackhammer to clear away extremely hard rock around the horn. They take turns using the jackhammer while the other clears away the fractured rock. They are extremely careful not to come too close to the fossil.
In the afternoon, it’s time for more precise work. Three members of the team climb the hill with their picks and screw drivers to try to clear away the rock immediately around the horn. While huge chunks of rock were cleared away earlier, now pebble sized rocks are chiseled away painstakingly. What took five minutes this morning, takes hours in the afternoon. The weather on Thursday is hotter than it has been all week and the afternoon sun slows everything down even further. But by the time it is time to pack up late in the afternoon, Shein and the team are happy having exposed more of the horn. He will jacket the fossil before the field season is done.
Friday is my last day in the field and I’m back at the Suuwassea site after spending Thursday at the Triceratops field site. I’m surprised to see the progress made in just one day. The rocks around the vertebral area are more exposed. The ribs are completely exposed. There’s a fresh lead on a new area where a couple of possible tail bone fossils have been found near the top of the dirt. The crew continues with the regular brushing, sweeping, and shoveling.
Today is also about mapping. A team member brings out a drone to take aerial pictures over the site, which now has a grid placed over it. The team takes a water break and watches the buzzing machine swoop overhead.
The day ends with prepping the site for next week when a new team from the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project will resume the work. Friday night is our last night together and we celebrate in nearby Bearcreek at a local steakhouse and saloon that also has pig races out back.
I leave early on Saturday morning for a quick weekend adventure in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Back home in Philadelphia the following week, my long to-do list includes writing this piece and sorting through all the pictures and videos I’ve captured on the trip. But jumping back into my work at the Academy proves difficult. I sit at my desk on my first day back and check Twitter and Facebook for updates from the field. I watch over the next few weeks as the team makes close to a dozen jackets to bring back home.
Schein arrives at the Academy with a trailer full of fossils the first week of August. I’m surprised by the connection I feel to these ancient bones. Today, as I finish this piece, Poole has invited me down to the Fossil Prep Lab to watch the first jacket being opened. I can’t wait to hear more of the story these bones have to tell.